Chris Stapleton has always been the most unlikely of superstars. Slightly overweight 36-year-olds with beards and a burly countenance aren’t supposed to be the beneficiaries of the confluence of positive circumstances that powered Stapleton so high into the stratosphere of country music, he’s transcended the genre to be a superstar for all of music.
His debut album Traveller is now secured in the pantheon of legacy releases from the spectacular and sustained popularity it continues to enjoy well over five years since its initial release, while his rendition of the country classic “Tennessee Whiskey” is worthy of regarding with similar prestige and impact.
But Stapleton’s followup sessions to Traveller—specifically his 2-part From ‘A’ Room volumes—have not fared similarly for a number of reasons. Principally, they were made up of mostly previously-released material when it came to the songs, and the passion found in their short tracks lists didn’t necessarily meet or surpass his original sessions in Studio ‘A’ with producer Dave Cobb. They had their moments of course. But ultimately, the two records should probably be considered more as addendums to Traveller than dedicated followups.
This leads on to the fundamental challenge the now 44-year-old Chris Stapleton faces walking into what should be considered the true followup to Traveller. How does he take the incredible momentum enjoyed by that record, and try to extend it into this effort? For some songwriters and performers, wild success leads to a lack of passion, since goals and dreams have been accomplished, and financial ease secured. This was the scenario Stapleton found himself in while still residing in the blast radius of Traveller‘s success, trying to field new material.
But giving himself time for his creative batteries to recharge, and leaning into his strengths no matter what influences or genres they express, Chris Stapleton was able to turn in an impassioned, and quite expressive and involved record in Starting Over, that feels wholly Stapleton in style, approach, and scope.
Starting Over is a combination of Southern soul songs and straight ahead rock tracks, and a few sentimental ballads that constitute the smattering of country tunes. Guilty of being country mostly by association, Starting Over is truly more an embodiment of elemental “Americana,” meaning an amalgam of American roots influences, presented with a relative seamlessness between them.
Some of the tracks of Starting Over feel simply like launching pads, or underhanded lobs in batting practice for Chris Stapleton to smoke over the fence with his soaring, powerful, and soulful voice. “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” “Cold” co-written with his rhythm section of J.T. Cure and Derek Mixon, and “Whiskey Sunrise” are testaments to Stapleton’s effortless and natural delivery, and were written to be as such, while blistering guitar parts and other production rise to meet the epic nature of these efforts of blue-eyed soul.
By the time you get to “Arkansas” co-written with Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, you’ve reached decidedly rock territory, as you do with “Hillbilly Blood.” Energy is sometimes what Stapleton can lack if he’s not careful. That’s the rumored reason Sturgill Simpson showed up to Stapleton’s Saturday Night Live gig a couple of years ago, to give the moment a little bit of a catalyst. The result was a killer version of “Midnight Train To Memphis.”
There’s no worry about lulls in energy on Starting Over, unless that’s the intent, like in the opening title track, which upon first inspection might feel like just another ho hum Stapleton song. But through the jangle of the acoustic guitar, the simplicity of the approach, and the intimacy of singing with wife Morgane, it makes for one of the better entries in the Chris Stapleton catalog, and a worthy track to title the record behind.
You can tell in moments Stapleton is still stretching for inspiration for what to write about. Any fans of puppy dogs will find favor with “Maggie’s Song,” even if writing about your dog is pretty elementary, and the track perhaps barrows a bit too much from The Band’s “The Weight.” Including a rendition of Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” doesn’t add too terribly much to the record, but does give it a bit of lightheartedness, which helps balance out some of the more heavy moments, whether they’re about dead dogs, lost lovers, or the tragedy in Las Vegas that resulted in the enraged moments of “Watch You Burn,” where the album reaches its cacophonous peak.
Meanwhile the truly country moments of Starting Over are some of its most sedate. “When I’m With You” reminds you intently of Willie & Waylon. “Joy of My Life” and “Old Friends” capture Stapleton’s more passive and reflective side. Don’t come expecting a lot of twang. But Starting Over is passable as country just as much as you could pass it off as anything. No specific song will barrel you over from a writing standpoint. But each track is solid, while the performances are what renders certain tracks as stellar.
Starting Over is also bookended with a more underlying message. Where the beginning title track speaks to leaving it all behind and sparking something anew somewhere else (maybe on a coast somewhere), the ending track “Nashville, TN” is very much a Dear John letter to Music City, where Stapleton has been such a fixture, and such an influence for the last decade or so. Whether it’s more metaphorical or a true sayonara, it adds a bit of intrigue to the album, and even veers a little into the country protest territory.
The greatest adversity for Chris Stapleton and Starting Over is the sentiment surrounding him as a known quantity, a sort of “been there and done that” attitude some approach his music with, especially more dedicated, hardcore music fans. He’s in a strange position as one of the few stars of substance that has ingratiated himself to the masses, which makes him easy to snub by the musical elite.
But Chris Stapleton’s talent is still undeniable, his appeal worthy of the wide recognition he enjoys, and it’s all unmistakable and captured with renewed passion in moments very much worthy of your attention on Starting Over.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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